What the hell is going on at Fox News?
On Friday evening, Fox viewers were treated to an hour-long televangelical special starring Glenn Beck. (The opening of the show can be seen in our Watch Now window, at right.)
Watching Beck cry for the cameras is always a treat, although I notice that Beck’s colleague Sheppard Smith did not enjoy it very much.
But other viewers certainly did like it. Beck is eclipsing Sean Hannity as Fox’s second-biggest story; very likely the ratings for the Friday special even overtook O’Reilly. Clearly, Beck is tapping into something. What?
Beck insists “It’s not about politics.” His special made a point of featuring images of Republican House leader John Boehner during his castigation of politicians “left and right” and both “the last administration and this administration.”
So what is it about then? What are Beck’s growing number of viewers responding to? On air, Beck promotes sinister conspiracy theories. Here he is on Fox & Friends, warning that the Obama administration is planning a totalitarian takeover:
We are a country that is headed towards socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest dreams. I have to tell you: I’m doing a story tonight that I wanted to debunk – these FEMA camps – I’m tired of hearing about them – you know about them? - I wanted to debunk them. We’ve now for several days done research on them. I can’t debunk them! If you trust our government, it’s fine. If you have any kind of fear that we might be heading towards a totalitarian state: look out. Buckle up. There’s something going on in our country … that ain’t good.
And here he is suggesting that serial killers erupt because they are pushed to the wall by “political correctness.”
The audience for Beck’s Friday night special were each given copies of two books. One of them was Cleon Skousen’s Five Thousand Year Leap. Skousen, who died in 2006, is one of the legendary cranks of the conservative world, a John Bircher, a grand fantasist of theories about secret conspiracies between capitalists and communists to impose a one-world government under the control of David Rockefeller.
There’s always been a market for this junk of course. Once that market was reached via mimeographed newsletters. Now it’s being tapped by Fox News.
Conspiracy theories always flourish during economic downturns. They flourished during the terrible slump of the 1890s (when they captured even so fine a mind as Henry Adams) and again in the 1930s. Today’s slump – so vast, so difficult to understand – opens the door again.
Right-wing populist conspiracy theorizing often overlaps with the left-wing variety. And yet there are significant differences.
Beck speaks to a feeling that this powerlessness is somehow new, somehow a departure from the natural order of things:
This is your country, you are still in control. … Now you’re being forced to bail those people out. There are more of us than there are of them. We surround them.
It’s not a new message of course. In fact, big parts of it seem almost self-consciously copied from Peter Finch’s legendary declamation in the movie Network.
Of course, Finch was only pretending to be crazy. He was an actor performing a role. Then again – so probably is Glenn Beck.
But what about Fox News? What’s their excuse?